This is a guest contribution by Dan Phelps, who participated in a sort of warm-up debate before the infamous Nye–Ham debate. Mr. Phelps’s contribution was inspired in part by a challenge for a formal debate by his interlocutor, Terry Mortenson, who, astonishingly, admitted that he has “no credibility in the scientific community and little even within Christian circles.” Mr. Phelps evidently looked further into Dr. Mortenson’s background and discovered at least some of the reasons that Dr. Mortenson lacks credibility, period.
On January 30, I was on WEKU-FM, Eastern Kentucky University’s NPR station, for an episode of the weekly show “Eastern Standard” to discuss the topic Is Teaching Creationism Harmful to Children and Society?.
The Host was John Hingsbergen. I was paired with Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis and the Creation “Museum.” Dr. Mortenson has a doctorate in the history of geology from Coventry University in England and discusses his academic qualifications here. Dr. Mortenson has a legitimate degree, but, as we shall see, he has bizarre conspiracy theories on the origin of modern geology that put him far, far out of the mainstream.
Conspiracy theories. Oddly, but not unexpectedly, Dr. Mortenson put forth some unusual arguments during the show. He insultingly compared scientists’ “presuppositions” to a racist police officer1 and defended several conspiracy theories concerning the history of science in particular and the scientific community in general. I have transcribed several portions of the show for readers of The Panda’s Thumb:
Terry Mortenson: What a person’s presuppositions are before he ever looks at the evidence will affect what he sees and how he interprets what he sees. A police officer who is a racist and has an agenda against the black community will try to look at the evidence and he will be able to build a case that gets this black guy convicted and sent to prison because of his presuppositions and his manipulation of the data, consciously or unconsciously.
Daniel Phelps: So scientists are in a conspiracy then? Is that what you are claiming? That science is a conspiracy?
TM: Not a conspiracy but my experience is in the origin of the old earth thinking and James Hutton and Charles Lyell – they were deists or atheists …
DP: That’s not true, especially of Charles Lyell. He was actually a devout Christian. That’s nonsense.
TM: No, he wasn’t, you don’t know. No historian of science would agree with you.
DP: You are basically purporting a conspiracy theory for the origin of science.
TM: No, I have read Charles Lyell’s writings on this issue, and no historian of science would agree with you in that statement.2
A little later in the show:
TM: No evolutionary geologist would go into the Grand Canyon and even ask the question, “Could this be the result of a global flood?” His presuppositions rule that out before he ever looks at the evidence. A creation scientist goes in, he’s assuming, because he has eyewitness testimony of the Creator, there was a global flood – I should see evidence of that [flood]. And creation scientists like Dr. [Andrew] Snelling, like Steve Austin have made numerous trips, geological research trips approved by the National Park Service to research geological evidence in the Grand Canyon, and they see abundant evidence of a global flood.
DP: Basically you’re telling quite a bit of non-truths about what science actually does. I know for a fact that people that are employed by the Creation Museum have to sign an oath of Biblical literalism before they’re even employed. So that right there means that your presuppositions are very limited from the very moment you signed on to work for Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum.
Science itself is done in scientific journals and at scientific meetings. Anybody can show that they are able to do scientific research, and that’s how they’re able to obtain their master’s degrees and PhD’s. You write a thesis or a dissertation showing that you’re capable of doing such. Creationists, however, have not been publishing things in the scientific literature that claim that the earth is 6000 years old, that Noah’s Flood was real, that there were dinosaurs on the Ark, and [instead] they are trying to do, like, an end run around the scientific process[, which] involves peer review and publication in the scientific literature, to get their ideas taught in the schools.
TM: That’s simply false, that is simply false.
DP: All right, what creation scientists at the Creation Museum have published things in journals like Nature, Science …
TM: If you go on the Internet you can find that Andrew Snelling published all kinds of literature in the secular …
DP: That is true, he published things in the literature, but they did not say that the earth is 6000 years old, that …
TM: That’s because the literature is dominated by evolutionists who won’t …
DP: So there is another conspiracy theory here saying that the scientific community is conspiring to keep Andrew Snelling from publishing his evidence that the earth is 6000 years old?
TM: Well there’s plenty of evidence that anybody who criticizes evolution is going to pay a price for it.
DP: OK, show us the rejection letters from the journals that they submitted these papers to.
TM: Well, I can’t show you, but I know people have submitted [papers], and their papers were not accepted.
John Hingsbergen: We want to get some of our …
TM: Dr. Steve Austin presented his research to the National Park Service on the Grand Canyon …
DP: Well, that’s not a scientific ven …
TM: … geologists about his research on the nautiloid fossils, and it was very much appreciated. Creation scientists have presented poster sessions at the national geology meetings.
DP: Anybody can do that. That is not necessarily peer reviewed. I’ve done that and it is not peer reviewed.
TM: If you attack their degrees and say they’re incompetent, then you’re gonna attack all of the evolutionist professors who supervised their PhD research and granted the degree.
DP: Well, the degree only means they were capable of scientific research, not that they are doing [scientific research now].
TM: They should never granted the degree if they are so incompetent. And so they can write a thesis and then they can’t write an article afterward? The month after they get the PhD?
Debate challenge. In the very last moments of the show, Dr. Mortenson challenged me, in a style reminiscent of professional wrestling banter, to debate him. Here is the transcript:
TM: I would like to ask Mr. Phelps: I will debate you anywhere you want to debate, just on the scientific evidence, and if I am a total ignoramus and don’t understand any of it, you should be able to destroy my credibility easily before the audience. So I would be happy to debate you.
DP: I’ll tell you what, Mr. Mortenson, or [rather] Dr. Mortenson, you can write a paper in a scientific journal arguing that dinosaurs were fire-breathing dragons …
TM: … It wouldn’t be published …
DP: … on Noah’s Ark and I would be glad to review it.
HOST: Folks, we’re out of time.
In a sense, I accepted Dr. Mortenson’s debate challenge. He challenged me to debate anywhere. I advised him to publish a paper in a peer reviewed journal supporting one of the central claims of creationist paleontology and stated that I would be glad to write a reply. Scientific “debate” takes place in peer reviewed journals, not at formal debates in front of an audience of nonscientists (many of whom are unfamiliar with both the scientific method and the actual findings of science).
Demonology. After the radio show, I discovered several “interesting” things about Dr. Mortenson and his approach to the history of science. On December 26, 2012, he published a most enlightening article, Are Demons Active Today? on the Answers in Genesis webpage. In this article, Dr. Mortenson attributes many things to the action of demons including aspects of animist, Hindu, and Buddhist culture. He thinks Western culture is not immune to demonic influence, mentioning satanic rock groups and the origin of the Mormon Church. He states:
Evidently, demons rarely show themselves in the same way in the “enlightened” Western world. But it may also be that the West’s anti-supernatural mentality keeps us from recognizing their activity. Indeed, the West’s increasing opposition to belief in the supernatural is an even stronger indication of demonic deception.
Apparently, to Dr. Mortenson at least, lack of belief in a conspiracy by most people is even more evidence that the conspiracy exists.
More relevant to the history of science is Dr. Mortenson’s claim that: “The widespread acceptance of evolution (including millions of years and the big bang) is strong evidence of the continuing work of Satan and demons.” Perhaps Dr. Mortenson would care to defend his bizarre demonology claims in one of the numerous journals on the history of science or geology? I’m sure he will claim a demonic conspiracy will keep his “research” from being published.
Imagine my surprise when several weeks passed, and Dr. Mortenson wrote two posts, here and here, at the AIG website, repeating and expanding on what he said in the radio show and accusing me of being afraid to debate him. In his second post, Dr. Mortenson states:
At the end of the January 30 radio interview, I challenged Mr. Phelps to a public debate about the scientific evidence related to origins and to do it at the location of his choosing. He refused, instead hiding behind the false demand that I publish my objections to evolution in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and behind the red herring excuse that he would be giving credibility to a creationist to debate me.
But I submit that the real reason he refused is because he can’t defend his position in the free-marketplace of ideas. I only had biology and chemistry in high school and one physics course in college. I have no credibility in the scientific community and little even within Christian circles. With his BS and MS degrees in geology, winning a debate with me should be very easy. If evolution was really true and all the scientific evidence confirmed it, a debate with me would be a great way for Mr. Phelps to demolish any credibility I have within the Christian community and to make creationists look like the ignorant, gullible fools that he and other evolutionists think we are. Too bad that he is unwilling to defend his views in a formal public debate.
In other words, Dr. Mortenson has no academic qualifications or credibility to debate science, but thinks that others should be obligated to participate in a formal debate with him. As is typical of the “researchers and scientists” at the Creation “Museum,” Dr. Mortenson wants to claim his ideas are credible by having formal debates with scientists. If he and his colleagues really want to be taken seriously, they should publish their creationist claims in the peer reviewed literature. However, Dr. Mortenson’s claims about science, depending on his intended audience, rest on conspiracy theories and weird ranting about demons. No wonder he has earned this listing at the Encyclopedia of American Loons.
Notes. 1. This is ironic considering this report on one of Dr. Mortenson’s talks at the Creation “Museum.”
2. Later in the show, Dr. Mortenson changed from arguing that Lyell was an atheist to simply claiming he wasn’t “a Bible-believing Christian.” Actually, Charles Lyell was a Unitarian. See Charles Darwin, Geologist by Sandra Herbert (2005). On page 187, after citing primary sources, Herbert states, “Thus, while Lyell was a modernizer by virtue of his campaign in the Principles of Geology against Mosaic geology and by virtue of his opposition to Anglican hegemony in such important areas of national life as education, he remained a religious man.” Interestingly, Dr. Mortenson refers to Lyell as a Unitarian in his later posts on the Answers in Genesis website, but apparently thinks that 19th Century Unitarians were not Christians, presumably because they were not Biblical literalists.
Of course what really matters is the evidence that Lyell and later geologists presented, not their religious beliefs.